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Editorial: The prehistory of war fever

On the approaching anniversary of 1914

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, an uncomfortable question raises its head. Why did so many millions succumb to ‘war fever’ in 1914? While there was a lot of reluctance and a fair amount of resistance to the war, the actual declaration of war spawned huge, wildly-excited crowds in the major capital cities and the fever claimed many liberals and left-wingers.

The emotions that overwhelmed these Europeans had little to do with hate or rage or greed, Barbara Ehrenreich observes in her magnificent 1997 book, Blood Rites. The intoxication, she suggests, was made up of some of the ‘noblest’ emotions: ‘feelings of generosity, community, and submergence in a great and worthy cause’. Ehrenreich argues that the focus of war fever is not killing the enemy, but sacrifice.

When we were prey

Visiting the Ice Age art exhibition (reviewed on p12), you notice that no images of brutality by humans towards animals have survived from this period. No images of human conflict, or of warriors have survived from this period. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Perhaps not.

It turns out that our picture of ourselves as a species is highly distorted. We tend to think, for example, of early humans as hunters of large mammals. We forget that before we became hunters, we spent millennia as the hunted, as prey for predators such as lions and tigers.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites is concerned with how the period our species spent as prey may influence our feelings around war. It is the emotions we still carry from this long trauma, Ehrenreich suggests, ‘that color war with the profound feelings – dread, awe, and the willingness to sacrifice – that make it “sacred” to us.’

When baboons travel in the African savannah, females with young children are generally in the centre of the group with the dominant males; other females and other adult males are in the next ring; and adolescent males, the most expendable part of the troop, are kept on the periphery where they may be picked off by predators. They are a sort of sacrifice; offerings to protect more valued members of the group.

Early hominids may have travelled in similar formations when they were forced into the grasslands of Africa.

It may be that the ecstasy millions felt at the outbreak of war in 1914, and the transcendent feelings millions of young men felt as they joined up, are linked in some way to the feelings our ancestors had about facing large predators collectively, and the awe they may have felt about the sacredness of sacrifice for the common good.

The deep emotion that self-sacrifice evokes in us can be brought on by courageous nonviolence as much as by military bravery. In fact, the noble feelings that self-sacrifice evokes are what makes nonviolence effective in mobilising allies, winning over those who are neutral, and, sometimes, in transforming enemies.

Topics: WW1